As nannies, we have come across many families who use dummies. We have used them ourselves, respecting parents wishes but have also had to approach the topic of when to stop the use of a dummy. This has presented a few issues. In our experiece, the situation has quite often shown us that a dummy is used more for a parents benefit, whether it reliably stops crying when out in public, given to a child out of habit or the fear of taking it away. However, the most common conversation had with parents about dummies has been linked to the child’s language development. It is vital that a dummy, if it has to be used at all, is used in small amounts and/or limited to a particular time of day e.g bedtime. Children must be given a wide amount of opportunities to learn language skills, and if a child has a dummy in its mouth for a majority of the day, these opportunities cannot be used to their full advantage.
We contacted Leonie Seek, a Speech and Language Therapist from Bath to get her views and recommendations on the subject of dummies and mainly how it can effect a child’s speech. After completing both a degree and masters in Speech and Language Therapy, Leonie worked in London, with children from 18months to 18, concentrating on the younger years. Leonie has now relocated to Bath and works alongside young children in both schools and clinics and loves being able to give advice to teachers and parents and seeing first hand the impact this has on a child’s communication journey.
The effect of dummy use on speech, language and communication
Often as speech and language therapists, we are asked whether dummy use is appropriate at all….a question which is difficult to answer with one simple rule. It is therefore better to look at what can happen if dummies are overused, and how to tackle the difficult issue of removing a dummy once that decision has been made.
Speech and language therapists, along with many other professionals, understand that sometimes it is necessary for a child to have a dummy once it has been introduced. They can be used as a comforter when all else seems to have failed and for many are a golden tool in grabbing that few minutes of quiet. It would of course be all too easy for us to suggest that dummies should not be introduced in the first place, but the reality is that we know many parents and carers make this choice very early on as they can be a great way to soothe and comfort in the first few early months of life.
Impact on language development
When using a dummy, the sucking motion causes the Eustachian tube in the middle ear to open. This opening of the tube allows bacteria to enter into the ear which can lead to Otitis Media, a nasty infection which is known to many as ‘Glue ear’. But how does glue ear affect language development? When a child has glue ear, it means that they are more likely to not hear certain sounds in their entirety. They may hear only parts of words and some sounds such as ‘s’ may not be heard at all (ICAN, 2005). As with any hearing loss, these children are more likely to have delayed or disordered speech and may struggle with grasping concepts that are carried by certain sounds (for example marking plurals as cat or cats). Imagine not being able to hear whether your parents want you to find the ‘snail’ or the ‘nail’…..a frustrating situation for children and adults alike.
Children need to explore the different uses that their mouth has in order to effectively communicate with others. They will learn for example that when they smile, those around them will smile. A simple movement that they can make which not only brings joy to others, but may also indicate the continuation of a game, more of the food they like or an extra cuddle. In the same way, children also need to explore the sounds that their mouth can make. These exploratory noises allow children to cement the way that they place their tongue and use their mouth shapes to form specific sounds. A dummy gets in the way of this, think of how difficult it can be to produce the right sounds when you have a mouth full of food; the principal of dummy use works in the same way.
If this were not enough to put you off the overuse of dummies, continued use has been shown to lead to misaligned teeth, overactive front mouth muscles and an overactive tongue thrust (Fahey, 2004). These can cause children to produce sounds that should be produced at the back of the mouth as front sounds, so that ‘cat’ may come out as ‘tat’ (a process which is age appropriate until the age of 4.5) meaning that general intelligibility is significantly reduced.
Suggested recommendations for dummy use
It is understandable to use a dummy, and I am not trying to say never ever use one again. Instead, the following steps are suggested to help reduce the overall impact that a dummy may have.
Under 12 months. Have times when your child is relaxing that you don’t use a dummy. This will allow them to practice with their mouth shapes and gestures and play around with all those lovely early babbling sounds that will later lead to early language.
Over 12 months. Try to keep dummy use to bed time or set times when such as when they are upset or angry (for example). Try to wean them off of a dummy all together by the time that they are 2 years old; when language really booms.
Always. Take the dummy out when the child attempts to speak or make noises to communicate with you or another. This will allow the tongue to move freely and encourages correct pronunciation.
How can I get rid of the dummy?
This can be a tricky time for anyone who has to remove a dummy from a child who relies on it strongly for emotional comfort. There is no one easy way to stop for good, and many strategies may have to be employed.
- Golden rule: once you have decided that the dummy is gone don’t bring it back or have spares around the house. This can lead to confusing and conflicting messages for the child and may lead to stronger emotional responses.
- Try to replace the night-time dummy with reassuring routines. This may be that you give them a longer cuddle or allow them an extra story to soothe them.
- Praise the child when they don’t object to the dummy being taken away. This positive enforcement will lead to the child being happier about the dummy removal in the long term.
- Choose the right time to give it up. Don’t be pressured into giving up when it is not the right time for you. If you are stressed or unusually busy then the likelihood of slipping back into using the dummy is higher than if you have time and are relaxed.
- Remember that you can always seek advice from your health visitor for more tips on getting rid of the dummy.
During all of this it is important to remember that by taking away the dummy, you are doing the very best for the child in the long term.
If you have chosen to remove the dummy and are looking for some tips on developing early language then the following suggestions can be used to encourage and promote appropriate language development.
- Make it a fun and exciting thing to want to do. Engage the child in fun and musical nursery rhymes. The use of these alongside actions can increase their desire to want to communicate and allows them to share the enjoyment with you. (Try ‘this little piggy, round the garden etc.)
- Make sounds into words. Try to interpret the message that your child is trying to communicate to you. Take their sounds which could be a word and make it into one, they don’t need to say it perfectly so there is no need to make them repeat it. For eg. The child says: ‘ow’ as they sit down. You say: ‘down, sit down’.
- Make sure they are looking. Young children are unable to focus on two things at once. This means that if you are talking to them, it is most beneficial and they will take in the most when they are focused solely on you and what you have to say.
- Observe, wait and listen. Really take in what your child has to say and how they are playing. Follow their lead and comment on what you see them doing in the real and now. This includes not over asking questions, the likelihood is that they won’t know what you’re asking and so it is irrelevant to them and their communication.
- Use opportunities for talking. Use every day routines as a base for language learning. These routines will allow them to hear language in relation to actions and gives them a chance to repeat and practice words that they have heard you use.
- In play:
- Routines such as ‘at tea time, bed time, bath time’ etc.
- Special trips
- Reading and sharing of books
- Talk about pictures and drawings
- When watching TV together
- Answering any questions that they may have
Remember that language is fun! Show the child that it is a fun thing to want to communicate and share their excitement when they first begin to produce sounds and words. If you are concerned by anything that you have read above please do contact your local speech and language therapy department for further information and support.